Jimmy Lytle, 68, kneels in a farm field north of Hatch, N.M., and plucks a large green pepper from a plant soaking up the blazing summer sun. Using a tape measure, Lytle checks the length of the chile.
“Sixteen inches from point to stem,” says Lytle, adjusting his cowboy hat. “That might be the new world record.”
A third-generation chile farmer, Lytle knows plenty about growing oversized peppers. During the 1970s, his father, Jim, helped develop the Big Jim variety, the largest chile in the world, and in 1988, his mother, June, set the record for the longest chile with a 13-inch pod.
The town of Hatch (pop. 1,648) has been associated with chiles since the 1920s when June’s father, Joseph Franzoy, homesteaded in the Hatch Valley and began growing peppers to sell to miners in Silver City, N.M. Today, a fourth generation of the Franzoy family carries on the tradition, helping Hatch maintain its reputation as the Chile Capital of the World.
Chiles are New Mexico’s signature crop and a staple of Southwestern cuisine, along with beans, corn, onions and tomatoes. Be they hot, medium or mild, chiles add flavor, heat and color to enchiladas, chile relleno (stuffed chile), soups, stews, salsas, sauces and spices.
“I’d say everyone [in Hatch] eats chile at least once a day,” says Shayne Franzoy, 38, supervising the harvest on his family’s Chile River Farms, north of Hatch.
“My father ate chile every meal,” adds Shayne’s father, Jerry Franzoy, 68.
After chiles are harvested, they’re hauled to food processors where the green and red pods are canned, dried, frozen or shipped fresh to grocery stores and restaurants across the nation.
Each Labor Day weekend, Hatch residents celebrate the harvest with a festival that showcases the town’s famous and fiery crop. The celebration began in 1971 as a small gathering of chile growers and has grown into the town’s premier event, attracting up to 20,000 people annually.
The festival features a parade, queen contest, carnival, live music, chile tossing and eating contests, and more than 100 vendors selling chile-related food and merchandise, including chile cheeseburgers and green chile ice cream, chile cookbooks and chile-scented candles, strands of dried red peppers and tons of flame-roasted green chiles.
“You roast chiles to remove the skin and to bring out the flavor,” says Dagoberto Valverde, 31, manning a chile-roasting stand.
Some chile lovers go to great lengths to get their chile fix.
Last September, Jim and Jackie Johnson drove 1,036 miles from Little Rock, Ark., to pick up their annual supply—160 pounds—of Hatch green chilies, which they planned to roast and freeze on Labor Day.
“We eat them on almost everything,” says Jim, 47, after loading four 40-pound burlap sacks into the back of a rented SUV at Hatch Chile Express.
“It’s almost like having salt and pepper on the table,” adds Jackie, 47.
Such culinary cravings don’t surprise store manager Jo Lytle, 66. “A day without chile is like a day without sunshine,” she says.
During last year’s Hatch Chile Festival, Lytle’s husband, Jimmy, wowed the crowd with his giant chile peppers, including one that measured 17 inches long, which he planned to document and submit to Guinness World Records.
“We are going to try to break the record again next year,” Lytle says. “We’re going to see if we can’t grow a 20-incher.”